CSA: Confederate States of America (***½)

Posted on March 1st, 2006 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

Mynagirl and I have a relationship where, when we are sure that we are alone and have absolute privacy, we share with each other the uncharitable, judgmental, mean, nasty, rude, cruel, and just plain malicious thoughts, jokes, and feelings that pop into our heads. These are the things that one would never ordinarily share with others, lest one be thought to be evil or crude. In most cases these thoughts don’t actually represent our beliefs, but instead represent things that we think are funny even if they are just plain inappropriate.

For example:

What’s the difference between Christopher Reeve and OJ Simpson?

OJ walked and Reeve got the electric chair.

or

What is the opposite of Christopher Reeve?

Christopher Walken

Now, intellectually I find both of those jokes offensive. I liked Christopher Reeve and don’t really approve of making fun of the dead. However, in my heart of hearts, both of those jokes make me laugh. They shouldn’t, but they do. They’re creative and funny, and Christopher Reeve was enough of a cultural icon for me to be able to disassociate the jokes from the actual tragic circumstances of his accident and his ultimate death.

And I would share with Mynagirl the fact that I found those jokes funny – she may or may not agree, but we revel in the trust and closeness that results from such open honesty with each other.

What, you may ask, do my autobiographical musings have to do with CSA: Confederate States of America?? Well, the parallel is that Kevin Willmott, the writer/director, has put into his script and onto the screen a lot of the same gasp-inducing-yet-funny things that many people might think, but never say.

The premise of the movie is that you, the viewer, are watching a television station, and that station is airing a Ken Burns-like documentary about the CSA. In the reality of this film, the South won the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, depending on one’s roots) and hence we have the Confederate States of America, or the CSA. The documentary (in the film) was produced by British television, complete with typically erudite and accented voice-over. The documentary is interrupted at regular intervals for commercials from the present-day CSA for products that would only have niches in this imagined reality, and also by news breaks reporting news that one would never see today.

I’m trying not to get too specific, as the parade of yelp-inducing moments in this film are endless and diabolically funny, while also forcing us to hold up a mirror to today’s less-than-perfect race relations. Mr. Willmott has taken a great risk in producing a film like this, because even though it is funny, it is also incendiary and I’m sure will be controversial.

I’ll give you a real-world example of how this film is completely relevant today. We went to this movie with our friend Bruce, and it was showing at the Angelika theater here in downtown Houston. The Angelika is an upscale venue for arty, snobby, and foreign films that have some revenue-generating potential (it’s not a gritty, run-down, art-house type venue, is what I mean). We go there frequently and really relish the experience of seeing a film in a calm and serene setting, with comfortable seats, good concessions, and interesting films, without having to subject ourselves to the multiplex masses.

So, today when we showed up for the film, we purchased our tickets and went inside. To picture the scene, please note that the lobby of the Angelika is very beautiful, with artistic touches and over-sized posters of foreign films on the walls of the soaring atrium overhead. Also, the three of us are about as white as you can get – I’m of Czechoslovakian-British descent, Mynagirl is German-British, and Bruce is Polish. That’s about as white as you can get, and we were in a place that, let’s be honest, is traditionally populated with upper-middle-class whites, pseudo-intellectuals, and film-geeks.

However, when we walked in today, the lobby was the fullest that I have *ever* seen it, I’d say between 100-125 people (and if you’ve even been to the Angelika you’ll realize how full the lobby was), and 95% of the patrons were young African Americans, 90% of those male. My immediate thought was that they were here to see CSA (which is billed as being “Presented by Spike Lee”), and based on the interactions of people I could tell this was an organized event, and that they weren’t all here by accident. So, I wondered what organization had gathered here en masse for this film, and I wrestled with the fact that this film might not raise up warm feelings of brotherhood in my fellow moviegoers. I didn’t have any specific worries, but let’s just say I was tracking the potential of ending up on CNN in the worst-case scenario.

After we got our concessions and headed into the theater, we realized that 99% of the African American folks were there to see a sneak preview of the film ATL, which is a coming-of-age story focusing on four black friends. I have to admit to a certain amount of relief-followed-by-white-guilt at my own feelings. Realisticaly, I knew that it was possible that watching a film like CSA could very easily, and understandably, generate feelings of ill-will from a theater full of young black people. And I also calculated that there was a very small, but nonetheless real, chance that those feelings might manifest themselves in some confrontational way.

I was also a bit disappointed that they weren’t going to see CSA, because I think that dragging these kinds of unspoken differences and suspicions out into the light can only be good in the long run, and I was looking forward to playing my part. However, interestingly enough, the black-white viewership ratio swung wildly into the other direction, and I only saw one African American patron watching CSA. On the way out I wondered how he felt, being the only black person in a theater full of whites watching a film depicting modern life pretty much the same as it is today, only with slavery still being legal.

And that was an interesting result of this film, to me. I stopped and examined my own thoughts and feelings about race, and I pondered the thoughts and feelings of someone from a different race and wondered if they mirrored my own.

So that means this film was effective. I laughed, I was horrified, I empathized, I examined my own feelings, and I contemplated the feelings of others.

What more can one ask from a film?

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